LEGACY COMPLETE – RANNEY BOYS MAKE HISTORY WITH TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS WIN
By Mike Ready
PISCATAWAY – Ranney’s four-year journey to the top of the mountain reached its pinnacle last Sunday, as the Panthers rallied, then fought off a late Bergen Catholic charge to beat the Crusaders, 67-63, for the program’s first Tournament of Champions title at the Rutgers Athletic Center.
Four years ago when McDonald’s All-Americans Bryan Antoine and Scottie Lewis teamed up at Ranney as high profile freshmen, it was a forgone conclusion that these two freakish athletes would eventually take the school to heights no other Shore Conference school had ever scaled by winning the TOC.
It was four years in the making, however, with one land mine after another having to be navigated along the way. But Antoine and Lewis, along with fellow seniors Ahmadu Sarnor, Alex Klatsky and Chris Autino, junior Phillip Wheeler and freshman Elijah Perkins in the leading roles, finally got to that place they’ve been dreaming about since they first stepped on the court as brash freshmen.
“All we’ve done over the course of four years is win 22 or more games every year,” said Ranney head coach Tajh Holden. “We knew if we came in and did what we’re supposed to do we’d have a good chance of winning a championship. So we did that in the second half. If we had done that the whole game I would’ve preferred that much more, but it is gratifying to come away with a championship that so many anticipated that we would do.”
“It shows that we are winners,” Antoine said. “People kind of see us as Bryan and Scottie but that’s not how we see it. We see it as Mike Dettro, Alex Klatsky – from the starters to the last guy on the bench. Everyone played a role this year and in these four years.”
Ranney (31-3) entered the season as the clear favorite to win the 2019 TOC after pushing last year’s champion, Roselle Catholic, to the limit in the NJSIAA Non-Public B final. They carried the No. 1 ranking in the state most the year as well as being ranked nationally, so the target was on their backs from the get-go.
Only one other Shore Conference team had ever reached the TOC final prior to Ranney. Neptune lost to St. Anthony in the 2002 championship game.
Playing an out-of-conference schedule that included one nationally-ranked team after another, the Panthers were no strangers to overcoming adversity and Sunday’s game stayed true to the script.
Ranney fell behind, 10-2, with 4:20 left in the first quarter before pulling to within four, 13-9, as the quarter ended.
An Antoine slam dunk was followed by a Lewis lay-in to temporarily put the Panthers in front, 14-13, but Bergen Catholic (27-4) then went on a 13-2 run to take the lead back at 26-16. Crusaders 6-foot-10 big man Zach Freemantle – a Xavier University commit – was dominating in the paint with seven points, and St. Francis University-bound guard Doug Edert added two 3-pointers.
The Panthers cut the lead to five, 26-21, with 52 seconds remaining in the half, but a Will Richardson lay-in and rebound of an Antoine missed foul shot led to a classic Alley-oop with Edert lobbing the ball to Freemantle at the buzzer for the slam and a 30-21 halftime advantage.
“Even when you’re down like we were in the first half and things weren’t going our way and we weren’t sticking to the game plan, but we had an opportunity with 16 minutes in the second half to turn it around,” said Holden. “These guys are champions and winners and that’s what we do and they’ve shown that throughout the course of their four years.”
The Villanova-bound Antoine had 11 points in the half to pace the Panthers, while the University of Florida-bound Lewis added seven. Freemantle and Edert led Bergen Catholic with 11 and nine points, respectively.
“Our game plan is to always attack immediately,” Lewis said. “We have tremendous outside shooters but we know the strength of our game is to fast break and get to the cup.”
Ranney continued to struggle from the perimeter in the first half, something that’s haunted them in recent games, shooting 7-of-27 from the field and 0-for-5 from 3-point range.
“Previously over the course of the year, we have showed a lot of heart,” said Lewis. “A lot of times, teams give us their best shot in the first half. We just come out prepared and we treat the second half like it’s zero-zero. We knew the intensity of the game and what it meant to us to win it. I think we all individually did what we were supposed to do to win the game.”
Edert’s field goal pushed the Crusaders lead to 37-27 with 5:58 left in the third quarter before Ranney whittled it down to four, 39-35, on fast-break slam from Wheeler off an assist from Antoine at the 3:42 mark.
Jayson Earle’s three put the Crusaders back up by seven, 42-35, but Ranney then outscored Bergen Catholic, 9-2, to pull even at 44-44 with two minutes left in the third. Antoine had four points and Lewis added a three-point play and put-back off an offensive board for five points.
Antoine, who ended his record-setting career with 17 points, six rebounds and four assists, then gave Ranney its first lead, 45-44, since the 5:18 mark of the second quarter and Lewis’s two free throws with 1:02 left in the third quarter put the Panthers up, 47-46. Edert missed a three at the buzzer and the two teams entered the fourth quarter separated by one point.
Klatsky, who had been 0-for-3 from 3-point range, hit a huge 3-pointer 11 seconds into the fourth quarter to give Ranney a lift. Wheeler then grabbed a board off a miss by Edert and was fouled before making both ends of the one-and-one for a six-point lead, 52-46.
Bergen Catholic cut the lead to four, but Sarnor, who was held scoreless in the first half but finished with 13 critical points along with six rebounds, an assist, steal and a block, answered with a 3-pointer off an assist from Lewis, who had rebounded at the other end, for a 55-48 lead.
“I just try to do my job: play defense, crash the boards, get rebounds and my offense will come with that,” said Sarnor. “That was my main objective.”
Sarnor then grabbed a defensive rebound that led to a Lewis lay-in underneath pushing the lead to nine, 57-48, with 4:48 left in the game.
With 2:56 left, Ranney led by eight, 62-54, after Antoine found Wheeler underneath for two, but Matt Zona hit a 3-pointer and was fouled before completing the four-point play to cut the Ranney lead to four, 62-58.
Freemantle then rebounded a Lewis miss, but Autino put Earle at the line for two shots. Earle made the first before missing the second but Freemantle was there to grab the board and put it back up for two and suddenly Bergen Catholic was within one, 62-61, with 2:28 left.
Lewis, who capped his career in sensational fashion with 20 points, 11 rebounds, two assists, two blocks and two steals, was immediately fouled and made the second of the double-bonus free throws to give the Panthers a two-point lead with 1:51 remaining. After two Bergen Catholic missed field goals and an offensive rebound by Richardson, who saw some space and drove through the lane for two, the game was knotted at 63-63 with 44 seconds left.
Sarnor was then fouled on the inbound and missed the first before connecting on the second for a one-point lead, 64-63, with 15 seconds showing on the game clock.
Richardson brought the ball up court with time winding down and attempted to drive the lane again but his shot was off the mark this time and rebounded by Wheeler, who was fouled with four seconds left to set off the celebration.
Wheeler made the first before missing the second, but Sarnor was there to snag the rebound and was fouled with 0.2 seconds left making both free throws for a 67-63 final.
Wheeler finished with 14 points, six rebounds, one assist and three steals.
It’s been a wild ride for the core five of Antoine, Lewis, Sarnor, Klatsky and Autino and as they walked off the court together for the last time, it was sad to see as one of the greatest eras of Shore Conference basketball had come to an end.
“It’s going to be hard, real hard, but I’ll get to watch them on TV,” said Holden when asked about moving on from this senior class. “Hopefully they’ll come back to watch practice and visit but it’s hard anytime you lose seniors. I think we have eight seniors that are leaving so it’s hard losing all those guys, not just Bryan, Scottie, Chris, Alex and Ahmadu. We got Mike Dettro, Cole Redman and Anthony Marino.
“So it’s an emotional thing having these guys for such a long time and watching them grow. They’re like family members now at this point more so than just players. It’s the natural progression of things, at some point they have to go, leave the nest and figure out how to fly. Hopefully we did a good job in teaching them how to fly and they’ll be successful at their next stop.”
It will be an especially tough separation for Lewis and Antoine as they go their separate ways at the next level after playing together since seventh grade and developing a bond that will last forever.
“I came to Ranney to go to school and play basketball with my brothers – my friends that I have had since sixth and seventh grade,” said Antoine. “It didn’t hit me until a couple of minutes into the locker room when I took off my jersey. That was the last time I was going to take off a Ranney jersey. The last four years were unbelievable with these guys. The work that we all put in the last four years was amazing and it shows.”
“We set the bar high,” Lewis said. “Winning the TOC and creating a culture and a program from scratch. That was one of the reasons we chose Ranney; we wanted to build something. We wanted that legacy – the legacy as the best team in New Jersey and the best team to come out of Central Jersey and the Shore.”